MtDNA polymorphisms: evolutionary significance in adaptation and speciation of subterranean mole rats



Patterns of mtDNA diversity in subterranean mole rats of the Spalax ehrenbergi superspecies (2n = 52, 54, 58 and 60) were previously studied in the main ranges of the four chromosomal species, and specifically in the 2n = 60 species and its peripheral steppe semi-isolates and desert isolates. In the present study we correlated mtDNA diversity indices, nucleon diversity, h, and nucleotide divergence, π, with physical (climatic), biotic (parasites) and biological (genetical, morphological, physiological and behavioural) factors, showing that mtDNA diversity is structured ecogeographically and biologically. The following significant correlations of mtDNA diversity were indicated with: (i) climatic heterogeneity and unpredictability; (ii) levels of ecto- and endoparasites; and (iii) biological diversities, primarily with physiological diversity associated with the energy budget. Small steppe semi-isolates and desert isolates harbour high levels of mtDNA haplotype diversity, some novel, which may be a prerequisite for future speciation events. We conclude that the ecogeographical and biological correlates, as well as the maintenance of mtDNA polymorphisms in small isolated populations, strongly suggest that mtDNA diversity is not neutral. Diversifying natural selection appears to be an important differentiating factor of mtDNA diversity in the twin evolutionary processes of adaptive radiation and active speciation. We suggest critical experiments to substantiate our conclusions and highlight the contribution of mtDNA diversity to fitness, i.e. to the biological function of mtDNA diversity in the evolutionary process.